B-e-l-o-v-e-d, these were the only seven letters Sethe could get engraved on the tombstone of her two year old daughter, letters she thought would be enough. It is the spirit of this dead baby girl that haunts 124, Bluestone Road- a house that had no visitors- colored or white, newspapermen or preachers, speakers or friends. It’s not simply the house they are avoiding but the people in it.
There is little I can write here that can do justice to the experience of reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The horror that resides in its pages is not the vengeance of the ghost living in this house or the inescapable past of its characters. It is the horror of slavery, its routine separation of families, sexual violence and dehumanization. When you read Beloved, words can sting, laid bare before you is pain of the sort real people suffered. It is not an easy read, yet it is a novel you must read.
Being set after the end of the Civil War when slaves were emancipated, Beloved has most of its characters looking back to a time when slavery was not outlawed. The narrative opens in Cincinnati, the town Sethe, a runaway slave had escaped to 18 years ago, from the Garners’ farm in Kentucky- Sweet Home, which was neither sweet nor a home. It is repressed memories of Sweet Home that come back to her like blood gushing from an open wound, when she finds Paul D, the last of the five male slaves that ‘belonged to’ Sweet Home, waiting for her at her porch.
The ghost that lives in Sethe’s house, leaving hand-prints on cake and shattering mirrors is not an evil ghost but a sad spirit. This spirit comes back in flesh as the ghost Beloved, she is an embodiment of Sethe’s past that haunts her and feeds on her. It is Morrison’s incredible literary genius that has given a mythic dimension to the historical and psychological suffering of slavery. Beloved is a historical novel dealing with slavery at its best and worse: the Garners’ patronizing ‘principled’ slavery, Sethe’s mother being a survivor of the infamous middle passage, the School teacher’s violent and abusive slavery which goes to the extent of studying African American slaves as animals; and Mr. and Miss Bodwin, abolitionists whose attitude to slavery presents an irony.
It is a novel dedicated to the sixty million and more who died because of slavery. It tells you about the personal experience of slaves, their lives, something the history of an institution won’t say. At the heart of Morrisson’s novel are separated families, it is the knowledge of Sethe’s separation from her husband that embitters the sweetness of her love for Halle, a devoted son who worked on Sundays for five years straight to free his mother. Baby Suggs’ eight children are reduced to memory. To Paul D and Sethe, whose loved ones are always vulnerable to slavery, freedom is “to get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire.” Sethe’s fierce love for her children gives a new weight to the idea of maternal love. As an enslaved woman, she is willing to go to any extent to protect her children from the inhumanity of slavery.
Slavery is an experience that is different for men and women in a patriarchal society and Morrison represents both in all their complexities. The slavery that devalues maternal care in enslaved women by taking away children, degrades men by denying masculinity. Mr. Garner can call his male slaves ‘my men.’ By presenting both male and female survivors of rape, she foregrounds sexual assault as an act of both gendered and racial domination. To Paul D, his not being a ‘man’ is a source of trauma, his memory of feeling less of a man than a farm rooster is both dehumanizing and emasculating. He is a man whose trauma has forced his memories into a tobacco tin heart. Beloved narrates suffering that no one wants to remember.
However, it is also a novel of resistance laced with a glimmer of hope. Sixo is an embodiment absolute resistance to slavery. He fights the white men even when his hands are tied. An old and drained woman, Baby Suggs, who gives up on living life, still continues to look for colour in the house- blue, yellow, and green. She shows little fear of the ghost living in her house. As she says, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby…” Beloved is representative of this collective experience. The act of recording this experience is in itself an act of resistance, an attempt to restore the historical record, revealing history to be incomplete if not distorted. A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Nobel prize in Literature later, the significance of Morrison’s writings and its impact on American literature cannot be overstated.
Cover Image: Zarateman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons